TORONTO — Ontario's top doctor has instructed schools that sought more time to lift mask mandates and other remaining COVID-19 public health measures to fall in line with the provincial end date set for next week.
A number of school boards had asked for permission to keep mask rules in place in schools after they are no longer required in most settings, citing low youth vaccination rates and a need to watch for increased COVID-19 transmission after March Break.
Premier Doug Ford said earlier this month that boards would be expected to follow directions issued by Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore.
In a letter issued Thursday, Moore told boards that had requested an extension that mandatory masking in schools is set to end Monday.
"With the peak of Omicron behind us, Ontario has been able to cautiously and gradually move through its reopening milestones," Moore wrote in the letter, which was shared online by the Toronto District School Board.
"As we continue on this path, we are able to take a more balanced and longer-term approach to the province’s pandemic response, including in Ontario schools, by removing many of the emergency measures that have been in place over the past two years."
Among those seeking more time were the TDSB, Toronto's Catholic school board and the Waterloo Region public school board. The Hamilton-Wentworth board has also said its trustees passed a motion to extend the mandate until April 1.
The TDSB said masking will nonetheless be "strongly encouraged in TDSB schools, though not required" starting next week. Masks will still be available to both staff and students on request, and "classroom environments will be inclusive of all students."
"We recognize that adapting to this new reality will take time and that not everyone will have the same level of comfort as measures are lifted. It is OK to be anxious about the coming weeks and it is also OK to be excited and hopeful," the board said in a statement.
"Please do what makes you feel comfortable during this time and please respect the individual choices that other people make."
Other public health measures such as cohorting and physical distancing in schools and child-care settings are also set to be lifted on March 21. Staff vaccination policies were eliminated for school boards in the province earlier this month.
Members of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table and a coalition of children's hospitals have said masking should continue longer in schools.
Some private schools, which operate as businesses or non-profit organizations independently from the Ministry of Education, are opting to keep mask rules for the time being.
St Michael's College School in Toronto said masks will still be required inside the school building, while another Toronto school, De La Salle College, said its masking policy will stay in place until at least April 20.
The City of Toronto has also said masks will continue to be worn by staff in city-operated child-care centres when interacting with children, families and other staff. "Any change to policy will be communicated to families and staff in advance," the city said in a statement.
The government said Friday that licensed child-care centres can institute their own mask policies because they operate as private businesses.
Meanwhile, some post-secondary institutions are also extending mask mandates until the end of the winter term. Western University, the University of Waterloo and Mohawk College announced their decision earlier this month.
"There are many places across campus where physical distancing is simply not possible — classrooms and labs, residences, libraries, sport and recreation facilities and some work areas — so this is the best option to ensure the health and safety of our campus," Western said at the time.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press